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From: The Pragmatic Whitman


Walt Whitman has always been our most embarrassing poet.  Our perceptions of his offenses change from generation to generation, but at no time have the words of America’s “representative poet” failed to provoke some degree of displeasure, squeamishness, or disgust.  Some of his earliest critics were simply confused by the stylistic innovations of his barbaric yawp or put off by the immodesty.1  Other, more perceptive readers—readers able to either understand or appreciate those elements—sometimes objected to the poet’s sexual frankness.  When Emerson famously implored Whitman not to publish his explicit “Children of Adam” poems celebrating heterosexual love, he was representing not only his own sense of decency, but that of much of American culture, then as well as now.   And there has always been the problem of Whitman’s homoerotic poetry—an embarrassment deep enough, it seems, to motivate an otherwise credible biographer, Emory Holloway, to redeem the poet by attempting to authenticate Whitman’s own spurious account of a mistress and illegitimate children.2  In every generation there are at least some Whitman partisans who seem to wish that his “offence,” as W. D. Howells put it, “will some day [be] remove[d] for him” by “the judicious pencil of the editor.”3

I believe that a wiser appraisal of Whitman’s offenses, however, suggests that they are not so much his, but our own.  The history of hostile responses to Whitman tracks, in many ways, the history of our own moral, political, and cultural failures—failure to take full advantage of a new and liberating literary language, failure to give an honest accounting of our own sexuality, failure to recognize the humanity of gay and lesbian people—or to appreciate the moral significance of that humanity.  Likewise, however, the history of critical rereadings of Whitman is in part the history of our own moral maturation.  To say that American culture is in many ways “catching-up to Whitman” is to pay ourselves a significant compliment.  It is in this context that I believe we would do well to reexamine Whitman’s latest offense—patriotism.  Of course, what we now tend to think of as Whitman’s jingoism or chauvinism was not likely to worry to his nineteenth-century contemporaries.  He was, after all, right in the mainstream on that issue.  The same can probably be said for readers in the first half of the twentieth century.  In post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, however, Whitman’s seemingly mawkish celebrations of the United States become one of those problematic features of his works that teachers and critics read past or explain away.  This is even true for critics who are interested in Whitman precisely because they find aspects of his political vision so compelling.  In his sensitive reading of Whitman’s depiction of democratic individualism, for example, the political philosopher George Kateb makes a point of distancing himself—and even Whitman as well—from the poet’s nationalism:  “For me,” he writes, “Whitman’s greatness does not lie in his pursuit of an image of a democratic nationality . . . Nationhood is too close to a conception of group identity: a shared pride in tribal attributes rather than in adherence to a distinctive and principled human self-conceptualization that may one day be available to  persons everywhere in the world.”4  For Kateb as for many other critics, Whitman’s virtues as a political visionary make forgiving his nationalism worth the effort.

The notions that national pride is an evil and that its presence in Whitman’s work is an embarrassment are not, however, convictions shared by all critics.  Charles Altieri, for example, asserts that "the primary social reason we need concepts of a nation is that no other social unit can impose the kinds of responsibilities that enable us to address the needs and sufferings of large classes of people." In that light, he argues that Whitman's particular kind of nationalism is attractive because it focuses on "forms of responsibility to other persons" while also emphasizing "significant ways of pursuing selves we can become."5  In Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty also argues for Whitman's form of nationalism.  Rorty acknowledges that excessive and uncritical patriotism may lead to “bellicosity,” or, more dangerous, a taste for “imperialism;” nevertheless, he asserts that national pride plays the same role that self-respect plays for individuals.  It is, he writes,  “a necessary condition for self-improvement . . . Emotional involvement with one’s country—feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history, and by various present-day national policies—is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive.” For Rorty, American patriotism means identifying oneself, both emotionally and intellectually, with classic American democratic values and ideals.  Loyalty to America, in this sense, is loyalty to a utopian democratic creed—a  “civic religion,” as writers such as William James, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and of course, Walt Whitman, viewed it.  In practice, such patriotism means permitting oneself genuine pride in those moments in history when Americans were able to translate their ideals into successful public policy.   But even more importantly, it means laying legitimate claim to those democratic values and ideals—both as a resource for imagining new policy goals and as a powerful rhetorical tool to aid in achieving them.  In a sense, Rorty urges Americans to accept what Martin Luther King, Jr., might have called ownership of their country and its heritage; Rorty does not cite King, but it was just such a view of American ideals that permitted the Civil Rights leader to proclaim that “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”  And only by seeing America as a magnificent promise was he then able to march in 1963 to the American capital to demand its fulfillment.6

In recent years, however, the kind of idealism and patriotism that King represented has fallen largely out of fashion, especially among progressive writers and academics.  As a result, much of the intellectual talent that might be used to envision an America worth making is unused or misspent.  Indeed, by rejecting faith in America and the promise of its ideals, Rorty argues, social critics on the Left have given up their traditional role as agents for change in order to become “spectator[s] and to leave the fate of the United States to the operation of nonhuman forces.”  And as spectators the academic Left has no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieved by building a consensus on the need for specific reforms.  Its members no longer feel the force of James’s and Croly’s rhetoric.  The civic religion seems to them narrow-minded and obsolete nationalism.7

Our best hope for reinvigorating progressive thought in America, Rorty argues, is in returning to that civic religion.  Or, to put it another way, we need to look once again at Whitman’s patriotism and the civic religion that inspires it.  Then, perhaps, we might treat our embarrassment over Whitman’s patriotism in the same way we might have urged earlier generations to treat the source of their embarrassment: not as evidence of some shortcoming of the poet’s, but as a symptom of their profound and debilitating failure of vision.

In this book I intend to make just such an examination of the civic religion behind Whitman’s patriotism.  And the essence of that civic religion, the real object of his patriotism, is his own far-reaching vision of democracy.   Indeed, for Whitman, loyalty to America was loyalty to democracy—or as the poet himself put it in Democratic Vistas, he uses “the words America and democracy as convertible terms” PW 363.   My primary arguments concerning Whitman's democracy will proceed along two basic lines:  First, I attempt to explicate the many parts of Whitman's democratic vision and describe how those parts fit together as a whole; second, I attempt to explain the processes that shaped and reshaped that vision through the course of Whitman's poetic career.  I first argue that Whitman viewed democracy as a comprehensive description of human society and culture, analogous (at least) to the fundamental forces of nature.  He believed that democratic values such as individual liberty and self-governance, and democratic processes such as collective decision-making, are not just aspects of political life but also manifestations of principles that operate throughout the cosmos.  I then argue that his vision of democracy did not come to him whole, fully formed, but rather developed in stages, each one forged in struggle and complicating the one that came before it.  The theme of that development can be quickly summarized as a movement from freedom to governance:  That is, when Whitman first articulates his vision of democracy in 1855, he is essentially concerned with describing and celebrating a free, unregulated cosmos.  But, through the 1860s and 1870s, as biographical events trigger changes in his poetic style and historical events force him to reevaluate American social realities, his vision turns decidedly prescriptive, evolving into a complex primer on democratic self-government.8     

One of the consequences of this shift is that when Whitman's early and late works are viewed together, the word democracy winds up naming a number of different and even contradictory ideas.  It is all material—and, at the same time, all spiritual.  Democracy is the warrant Nature gives for human freedom--as well as the protocol it establishes for disciplined living.  It describes the universe as it actually is and, at the same time, prescribes the process that can make it so.  Democracy is the very way we imagine our relations to one another and to the material and spiritual world in which we live.  Indeed, it is not a single aspect of a larger organic vision: it is the organism itself and the quality of relations that binds it together.9    But in a sense, the two lines of argumentation converge on this point, for in the final analysis, the substance of Whitman's vision and the processes by which it develops are inextricable.  I argue that the vision that finally crystallizes by the time he writes Democratic Vistas is more complex and dynamic than its original counterpart because it is grounded in a necessity to reconcile the tensions it incorporates.   If, on one level, democracy implies antithetical ideas (say, the individual's complete freedom to think and decide for herself on the one hand, and the right of the community to bind that individual to majoritarian will on the other), then, on a deeper level, democracy must mean the process by which its many contradictions are adjudicated.

The notion that democracy is more than a political process, that it is a social and cultural process as well, is an idea often associated with American pragmatic thinkers.  And so throughout this exegesis of Whitman's democratic poetry I will lean heavily on the philosophical tradition of American Pragmatism, especially such pragmatists as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead and Richard Rorty.  Indeed, one of my intentions in this study is to demon­strate, more thoroughly than other critics have previously tried, how Whitman participates in that tradition—and thus, how the insights of other pragmatist thinkers can help to produce worthwhile readings of his poetry and, by extension, his democratic poetics.10  There are three reasons that pragmatic philosophy offers an especially useful tool for the study of Whitman.  First, like Whitman, Pragmatism's major thinkers have been particularly interested in reconciling the material discoveries of science (however relative and contingent we understand those discoveries to be) with the deepest cultural--i.e., political and moral--problems of the day.  Second, again like Whitman, ­many of Pragmatism's leading thinkers have sought a more expansive meaning for democracy, attempting to justify it as a metaphysical system that illuminates the various consequences which follow from the choices we make while organizing and living our lives. And third, both Whitman and Pragmatism are quintessentially American; that is, Pragmatic philosophy shares with the Whitmanian vision an intimate awareness of the unique ways that cultural and material relationships have patterned themselves in American society--and, more importantly, both use their knowledge of those "realities" to ground prescri­ptions for American life which are ultimately prophetic and redemptive.

In form, my discussion of Whitman's democracy is a story: I describe the evolution of his vision of democracy from its 1855 articulation of the metaphysical conditions that privilege human freedom to his ultimate understanding in the 1870s that, paradoxically, those same metaphysical conditions necessitate, even entail, a principle of governance.  I organize this narrative into three stages.  In part I, I lay out the metaphysical foundations of Whitman's democracy as they are found in the first two editions of Leaves of Grass, 1855 and 1856.  In part II, I examine how the two most significant events of Whitman's midlife, his 1859 sexual crisis and the Civil War, transformed his democratic poetics in "Sea-Drift," "Calamus," Drum-Taps, and  Sequel to Drum-Taps.  And in part III, I explore Whitman's mature vision in Democratic Vistas and conclude with some observations on its moral and political implications for contemporary America.

The elaboration of Whitman's metaphysics in part I begins in chapter 1 with a discussion of how Whitman uses "pragmatic" language to construct his democratic mythology.  Focusing on particular sections of the poem he eventually named "Song of Myself," I demonstrate how Whitman's explicit appropriation of ancient mythological constructs actually functions to set the rules for verifying the truth claims of his own vision.11 In chapter 2 I take up the issue of Whitman's democratic conception of selfhood.  I explain why, contrary to common critical assumption, Whitman's philosophy of identity is not dualistic in the classical sense.  As poems such as "Song of Myself" and "There Was a Child Went Forth" make clear, Whitman understood the self as fundamentally material and social.  In chapter 3, I explicate the elements of Whitman's open universe, his democratic "Kosmos."  Continuing the discussion of "Song of Myself" while drawing additional evidence from such works as "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," I argue that by imagining a universe that is both material and infinitely expanding, Whitman constructs a cosmological warrant for democratic freedom.  But as I show in chapter 4, it is also a laissez-faire universe.  Whitman's cosmos is only free because he has rid it of all material danger—what John Dewey called the precariousness of life.  There, corporal death is merely one more material change in an endless and benign continuum of change; freedom is guaranteed by existential conditions, and human choice-making is irrelevant.  Whitman's universe moves inexorably toward some ill-defined good as if guided by an invisible hand.

In part II, I explore the way two events—Whitman's sexual crisis of 1859 and 1860, and the Civil War—transformed his poetics and his vision of democracy.  As we see in the discussion of his "Sea-Drift and "Calamus" poems in Chapter 5, Whitman discovered that the poetics that made the depiction of laissez-faire possible were at the same time completely inadequate to the task of managing his own personal crisis.  The poet needed a language of agency.  Whitman develops agency in the "Calamus" poems by using his verse to restructure, in pragmatic fashion, a textualized model of his own identity.  The importance of this development, however, transcends whatever therapeutic value it held for Whitman himself; for, in so doing, he incorporated into his democratic vision the dynamics of individual choice-making essential to democratic practice.  This development bears fruit when Whitman confronts the second crisis, the Civil War.  Implicit in a poetic of human agency is an understanding that human behavior is neither determined by, nor perfectly analogous to, natural events--as laissez-faire theories suggest.  This becomes poignantly clear when the poet confronts the calamity of the Civil War, a calamity that could not be reconciled with the security of a laissez-faire universe.  Then, as will be seen in the discussion of Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps in chapter 6, the poet's democratic vision subsumes a new awareness: that the successes and failures which attend the struggle to manage human destiny are not reducible to natural processes but belong to the hybrid category, history.  This is a germinal insight for Whitman.  To recognize human history as a distinct category is to confront what Sidney Hook calls the tragic sense of life, the recognition that all human choice-making necessarily entails difficult choices, choices against some good in favor of another. 

Whitman's mature reflections, the focus of part III, pivot here on the recognition that human destiny is largely the product of human effort—that a truly humane society can only be shaped by intelligent human efforts to govern the forces that would otherwise govern them.  Now Whitman's challenge was to discover how that truth might be reconciled with the affirmations of freedom that originally informed his poetry.  That is, looking backward, he had to repossess all that he could of the democratic vision that had enlivened the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.  But looking forward, he had to re-imagine the fundamental dynamic of that vision and build in the mechanism by which a fuller democracy might be achieved absent the workings of laissez-faire nature's invisible hand.  In Democratic Vistas, the focus of Chapter 7, Whitman responds to this dilemma by articulating a theory of democratic culture, one that envisions the creation of a new kind of democratic individual nurtured by a cultural and spiritual democracy.  It is here that Whitman finally brings together all the strands of his democratic thought: the social and material self, the cosmically sponsored freedom, the imperative of human agency, the consequences of human history.  In Whitman's mature conception of democracy, all of these elements become organically interconnected as the poet defines democracy as a cultural—and ultimately, a religious–practice by which the everyday experience of subjectivity can be transcended so as to indulge in an imaginative experience of human sociality. 

The importance of Whitman's democracy--indeed, of any such sweeping conception of human organization--is to be found in the moral quality of whatever demands it makes upon those who take its principles to heart.  In the conclusion of this book, I suggest what those demands are.  To understand the moral and political demands that Whitman's vision entails, we need to look to the forces that shaped its growth.  Whitman's visionary development both parallels and anticipates much in the political evolution of the nation whose song he would sing.  As the dominant political ideology in the United States moved from the laissez-faire doctrine of freedom prevalent in Jacksonian America to the philosophical assumptions which underpinned the growing regulative functions of activist government, so too did Whitman's democratic vision move from one assuming uncritical faith in laissez-faire to one increasingly reliant upon the enlightened work of a democratic nation.12   The forces which animated these parallel developments in the nation's governing ideology and the poet's prophetic vision, were, of course, different.  For Whitman, visionary development came in response to dislocations that were not only social and political, but highly personal as well, while for the nation ideological development came largely as a response to the dislocations triggered by industrialization.  Still, for both Whitman and American political thought generally, the ideological elements of development are essentially the same: faith in radical, individualist freedom and belief in the possibilities of active, centralized governance.

Of course, the idea of individual freedom did not die as a political ideal, supplanted by notions of the regulated state.  To be sure, both live on as the great antinomies of the American democratic tradition.  The particular virtue of Whitman's vision is that it strives to bring those philosophical antagonists into relation.13  Whitman does not propose a political morality that demonizes either individual freedom or collective self-governance; he presents them instead as the polar points of an enduring political and spiritual tension—antithetical but mutually dependent abstractions.  As Whitman sees it, all public debate in a democratic society is necessarily structured by the opposing ideals of liberty and governance.  It is when these dynamic ideals are seen to authorize competing policy choices within the public debate that their meanings are redefined and relative values reformulated.  Thus, he teaches, we continuously imagine new possibilities for human freedom while thinking through the concrete means to achieve them.





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